Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dirck van Baburen

Dirck van Baburen. Man with Spoon Pipe and Game Boy, 1621.

Let us meditate a moment, if you have the time (I do!), on the obvious artistic wellhead of this painting: Caravaggio! Think, briefly, on the irregular composition, the lighting – but where is Caravaggio's eminent seriousness? That is the Dutch spirit, friends! Van Baburen, during his time in Rome (where he was nicknamed "Biervlieg," or "Beerfly" for his proclivities), was a member of the Bentvueghels, a Bacchic society devoted to the humanistic process of painting, as opposed to the rote, detail-oriented processes of classical Italian art education.

And yet van Baburen has chosen both, it seems – the skilled eye and hand of a Caravaggio devotee, and the gleeful abandon of the Dutch. His composition here is close and rough, lacking Caravaggio's secretive seriousness, presenting an intimate view (as if leaning over a table) of a youth, dressed festively for a toga party and wearing an elaborate hat of ostrich feathers, as was the fashion of the time. The youth fixes us with wide, reddened eyes as he grips a vernacular Dutch spoon bowl, his Game Boy (of an older vintage, one far predating the Game Boy Advance, which would not have been familiar to van Baburen – and regardless would have been too expensive for a rough-edged artist like him) sneaking out of the frame, laid atop sheets of Dutch feestmuziek.

Indeed, this painting, imperfect though it is (it seems casual, unserious, perhaps a preparative painting for a larger, more majestic, piece), is a wonderful look at what makes Low Country art so significant: it elevates small things, mundane things, familiar things, to heights equal to Caravaggio's – light plays in delicate patterns, heavy atmospheres abound, and yet these are our daily tasks, our hobbies, our small loves.

Let me close with a quotation from one of van Baburen's journals, which perfectly and succintly elaborates this point, and which I am of the finest fortune to possess – as I am of even finer fortune to be a distant relative of his, blessedly and blithly through the lineage of my Aunt Bettina!
Indeed, as we finished the night – I having lived up to the name Biervlieg – and rambled home through the tangled, manic streets of Trastevere, I looked on my fellows and saw that in the wan light of moon, their faces – Il Bamboccio, Het Fret, Calzetta bianca – all ruddy and worn, red-eyed from hotboxing, were semipiternal, elevated of a grace beyond us, capable with our brushes of fixing moments like these in time, on canvas, forever.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Jan Jansz Treck

Jan Jansz Treck. Still life vanitas, 1648.

A bout of foul weather can unnerve even the most subdued urbanite. This week in Amsterdam the temperatures have been moderate but damp.

But there is sunshine ahead. The slick pavement and puddles bested me following an abnormally long week of reupholstering and then correcting footnotes for a draft of an essay I'm finishing. Yesterday morning I was rushing to a meeting with my son and an admissions officer from an American school he's applying to. Over my shoulder was a large bundle with a suit and freshly-pressed shirt inside that I had cleaned for the meeting. I was crossing the street towards my office when a German couple stopped me. They were looking to get to the Van Gogh Museum. Already late and irritated I considered ignoring them. "Can't you order a Starry Night mousepad from the internet?" I thought. I was instead polite and patient and helped them with directions. We parted. As I was stepping onto the curb a large van rolled by, kicking up a wave of rainwater, dirt and fine gravel. All of the closed were soaked. What I was wearing and carrying were in an awful state. With no time to lose I kept my stride. I called the gentleman from the university to warn him of my appearance. He was fortunately a reasonable man and expressed his condolence with an reassuring laugh.

How I ramble!

On the walk I was attempting to force myself into a better mood. I am often able to calm myself by meditating on a favorite painting (usually one of Claesz's breakfast pieces). In my frustration I found Jan Jansz Treck's vanitas lodged in my mind.

This painting is particularly wretched. It is stuffed with signifiers of death. Of course there is a skull. This one is wrapped with brittle thorns that have been clipped from their vine. The standard meta reference to the arts is here in the form of a flute. The hour glass has toppled. A play by Rodenburgh entitled "Evil is its Own Reward" lays open, propped against a box of pre-cooked bacon. The tax form has me gripping my temples, recalling the absurd adage of life's only certainties. How awful this painting is!

I was fortunate to have freed the afternoon so that I might share it with my son. And, sharp as he is to my bad humors, he was happy to change our plans so that we might walk the halls of the Rijkmuseum and rejoice in the paintings there. An afternoon with the old masters is enough to put me in good spirits for days.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cornelis Anthonisz

Cornelis Anthonisz. Banquet of Members of Amsterdam's Crossbow Guard, 1533.

Indeed, toiling away in Cornell's Sibley Hall (home of the wonderful Fine Arts Library) during this snowy, wintry nights can be a trouble to the soul. But as I continue to compile material for my book, I find that the paintings themselves begin to warm me; I feel in them a depth of camaraderie that I (to be completely honest) do not always feel even in the company of my colleagues here at the University – where I am, at the moment, a scholar in residence. But at the banquet tables of Anthonisz, Hals, and Hoegstraaten, I am warmed by their candles, soothed by the scents of their breads.

Here, in one of Anthonisz's lesser paintings (I admit so much), we see the early birthings of this style that I love so much. I readily admit, of course, that the composition is nearly medieval; the psychologies of these men, the crossbow guard, barely developed; the perspectival and painterly techniques just at the cusp of a true master. (Please, reader, see past my rashness: one need not be a master to stir the heart!)

But one hardly needs to analyse technique or theory to feel a painting. Here I must hand over commentary to one Nils Poepjes, assistant to Cornelis Anthonisz from 1530-1538, whose journals have been utterly indispensible in my research (again, thank you, Cornell University):

Here today at the banquet of the CIVIC GUARD I found myself in awe of such a lustrous and delectable spread as I or Cornelis have ever seen – at once we felt ourselves hollow shells, empty stomachs entire; how long it has been since our dinner consisted of anything, anything but Kraft singles and white bread! And yet as Cornelis began to paint I began an interior catalog of the lushness even as Cornelis began his visual one:

A DiGiorno* pizza – imagine that – cooked in the Guard's new convection oven, served with ranch dressing, with chilly, delicious ice cream sandwiches for dessert; an ostentatious bong, which never ceased to waft the room in fragrant smoke; a seemingly endless pile of marijuana buds from which the Guard's members plucked their fill with nary a care for cost. Indeed, the Guardsmen were fond of attempting to draw Cornelis' and my attention to their larder, perhaps (I hope, at least – would that they were not being rude!) making offers unawares that Cornelis and I take no breaks and can brook no distractions during our work.

* It must be noted that while frozen pizzas today are often afterthoughts, cheap eats, at the time of Anthonisz, ovens were such a rarity that frozen pizzas were reserved only for those with time and money; delivery services like Papa John's were thought, in the words of Poepjes, "uncouth and low."